The glamour of evil: look beyond surface to find authentic joy

America magazine
8 February 2016

In the Roman Catholic rite for the baptism of adults, as well as in the ritual for the renewal of baptismal promises, a striking question confronts us: “Do you reject the glamour of evil?”

The question, in a parallel with the rejection of Satan, has ancient roots in early baptismal practices. It is a rare case in which even the most staid and proper of modern Christians participates in what we might call an exorcism. It is a rare case in which the church expects even comfortable, bourgeois Christians to renounce the culture that continues to clothe them, even though their original baptism already proclaimed the stripping of old ways. Indeed, it is a rare case in which the church takes up the topic of glamour at all.

Yet few seem to notice the phrase. A search of the most exhaustive electronic database of journals dedicated to religion and theology yields scarcely a dozen hits in which the expression“glamour of evil” appears. Nearly all the articles that reflect at length on the phrase’s import come from publications in Africa. These explore how the church on that continent might adapt the renunciation section of the baptismal rituals in order to “inculturate” Roman liturgies more fully in an African context, which includes lively belief in a very real spirit world. In Africa, Christian salvation can hardly be complete if it does not liberate new believers from evil spirits.

I wonder, though, whether Christians in America, Europe and the urban metropolises of rapidly globalizing capitalism do not need liberation from the glamour of evil just as much, if not more.

The Attraction of Evil

Do not get me wrong. I do not believe that glamour per se is evil, nor that everything glamorous is evil. Suspect, maybe, but not necessarily—not automatically—evil. The problem with glamour is that it is surface. It is the shiny patina, the thin veneer that makes something appear good and beautiful, whether or not it actually is. Yes, that which truly is good may shimmer with a glamorous sheen. Beauty of skin can go deeper than skin deep, continuing down to the marrow. But here is the catch: That which is truly good or authentically beautiful does not need the shimmer of glamour to attract. Evil does.

The deeply and truly good can project its beauty in earthen tones or bold ones. Its surface can be glossy but can also be matte. Its light may occasionally reach our eyes in the pure color of neon, but more often in subtle chiaroscuro. Or it can continue long without attracting notice at all. For the good is self-confident. It is intrinsic. Like the grain of solid hardwood, and unlike veneer, its pattern runs with infinite variability yet utter consistency all the way down. It is authentic. And so, quietly, without fanfare and without pretense, the good is capable of drawing us into relationship.

If we peered into the heart of evil and falsehood, we would be repulsed. Seeing it for what it is, we would naturally, instinctively, move away. The desire it evokes is, in fact, an anti-desire, a desire for distance rather than union—unless it distracts or deceives. That is why evil needs glamour in a way that the good does not.

So often, after all, evil does seem attractive. Literature about good people leading virtuous lives is hard to write. Some people joke—or perhaps they are serious—that they would prefer to go to hell and hang out with the interesting characters of history rather than to experience the infinite boredom of heaven.

If these people are reacting to the self-righteousness of those who are smugly and boringly pious, then it is hard to disagree. They are in fact seeing through another veneer of glamour—religious glamour—now worn thin. This is the falsehood of believers who try to project goodness while avoiding the hard interior work of allowing God’s goodness to purge and forgive them in secret. Along with Dante and C. S. Lewis and, I presume, Jesus, I suspect that the greater population of hell will be boring and petty in just this way. Whether its inhabitants are the many self-righteous or the few horrific criminals, their punishment will, I suspect, be to have their innards revealed as dull to the core because of a lifetime of willful neglect.

Of course I am drawing a stark contrast in order to make a point. A properly Christian and orthodox worldview sees evil as a nothing, not a something. Evil, according to Augustine and Aquinas, is wholly parasitic on the good. I thus speak starkly of “the good” and “the evil” here but do not draw a stark contrast between “good people” and “evil people.” Evil people must still enjoy dignity and goodness in some way in order to exist and function at all. And good people, in order to solidify their virtue, must be ever keen to ferret out their remaining dark corners of self-deception—ever quick to cry out for God’s grace. To name these complexities simply fills out further our picture of why evil needs glamour in a way that good never does.

Consider the celebrities who catch our eye on magazine covers as we go through the checkout lanes in grocery stores. None could rise to such prominence without exercising real God-given talents. Their acting abilities, their athleticism, their musicality, their business acumen—even the marketing finesse that accentuates their glamour in order to catch our eyes—these are goods. And often the best of celebrities are truly generous and caring people.

But would we really want to hang out with most of those on magazine covers as close friends? Be careful: this is a trick question. “Hang out,” probably, because we would like to bask in their celebrity glamour for a while, perhaps taking in the perks of a stimulating party life and then carrying home an autograph or memento. But all that is the continuing allure of glamour.

My question is whether we would want to spend time as close friends with those concerned first with maintaining their image. Close friendship implies something deeper: the reliable intimacy of abiding, trustworthy relationship, with the promise that our friends will hold our best secrets with confidence and meet our worst faults with compassion. If we actually buy one of those magazines, delve deeper into the pages and reflect on the stories, we may not be so sure about the answer. So often we will find stories of betrayal, pettiness, infidelity, jealousy or a loneliness or insecurity from which fame and wealth were supposed to insulate. Would these really be the intimate friends upon whom we would want to rely?

I would never want to deny that underneath some glamour lies authentic good. But I do think we may confidently say this: The more a person (or a culture) pursues surface beauty, shimmering glamour or magazine-cover prominence as ends in themselves, the less reliable will be that person’s hidden qualities.

Fame is not known as a condition that makes it easier for people to be better, kinder, more compassionate or deeper human beings. Ah, but does it make someone happier? That, I suspect, is the rub. That is the temptation. It is why so many pursue glamour. Who needs to be a deeper person if fame and wealth and attention are bringing the pleasures we assume will come with them? Who needs to be kind when fawned over by everyone? All things being equal, sure, I guess I would like to be a “better” person, but all things are not equal. Becoming better takes work. It might even require suffering. The people Christians hold up as the best—the saints—sometimes got there through martyrdom. “No thanks!” we say.

One could pursue a parallel line of inquiry about the difference between superficial pleasures and deep happiness or authentic joy. The confusion of happiness with pleasure surely reinforces our culture’s confused infatuation with glamour as the key to happiness. But I actually do want to defend pleasure—at least the exquisite though subtle and subdued pleasures that one can discover only by rejecting the glamour of evil.

Appearance Over Substance

If a social diatribe were a sufficient response to the glamour of evil, one could lament many more examples of our culture’s preference for appearance over substance. Increasingly, it seems that advertising has come to evoke ephemeral style over the actual qualities of products; politicians fast-track their candidacies through grandstanding rather than through accomplishments at actually governing; recreation is indoors, two-dimensional and virtual rather than three-dimensional and engaged with the real world of woods and neighborhood; the tenuous commitment of cohabitation replaces the lifelong covenant of marriage; “hooking up” takes the place of courtships, and pornography displaces even the slightest intimacy; and young people face incessant pressure to succeed by branding themselves as though they too were products.

Simply to tell a story of cultural decline is itself superficial, however. Nostalgia for the past also tempts us to, yes, glamorize the past. If something is truly new and different about our current situation, it is not that glamour now tempts us but rather that new technologies of media and marketing are perfecting the capacity to project allure and apply patina.

The test of whether cultural critique has integrity is its willingness to scrutinize its own social location. And for me, that location is the academy—or the education-industrial complex, which has a vast capacity to lure. If we are actually to quiet the allure of the glamorous, it can only be by projecting a vision of the authentic good, as well as the deeper but subtler pleasures that attend to the truly good life. But just here, as an educator, I am haunted and somewhat puzzled. How, really, to do this in the classroom?

‘Good Life’ Always Elsewhere

First, the haunting: Of all that I have read over the years about the state of higher education in the United States, nothing has troubled me more than a few sentences in a now 25-year-old essay by Wendell Berry, “The Work of Local Culture.” The essay appears in a book with the slightly jarring title “What Are People Good For?” Anything but technocratic and utilitarian, however, Berry’s implicit answer is that people are supposed to be good for each other.

The work of local culture to which Berry refers is that of storing memories and history and mutual assistance and ongoing patterns of trust, the way soil stores and holds the energy of the past, thus improving the land and making future community sustainable. A living local culture needs a vibrant local economy, though, one in which members across generations offer each other an exchange of useful skills.

For decades, Berry argues, our educational system has been doing the opposite: “The child is not educated to be of use to the place and community; he or she is educated to leave home and earn money in a provisional future that has nothing to do with place or community.”

The “good life,” in other words, is always someplace else. This is the meta-message of American higher education. It is a message of glamour. More than that, it is the systemization of glamour. If I live in Stearns County, Minn., the good life will be in Minneapolis. If I live in Minneapolis, it will be in Denver or Seattle. If I live in Chicago, then New York. And if I begin to tire of bright lights and a dehumanizing pace in one of those place, I might dream of returning to rural life, but it too often will be a glamorized rural life. Unless…

Finding Authentic Pleasures

In any of these locales, at any turn of hypermodern mobility, joyous authenticity is possible. But this means the farmer must find pleasure not just in crop profits but in the work itself: the smell of the land, the sweat and the tiredness. It means that the urbanite must find pleasure not just in the theater or bar scene but in community organizing, social entrepreneurship and parish life. It means that the community organizer finds pleasure not just in social justice ideals but also in meeting with stubborn neighbors. It means the social entrepreneur finds pleasure in seeing resources and projects fit together for the good of real people. It means parishioners see Christ in each other even when they sing off-key or the homily falls a little flat or the woman or man in the next row is probably voting wrong.

And it means taking time. Taking time does more for resisting the glamour of evil than finding just the right place to do so. As Pope Francis insists, “Time is greater than space.” Instant gratification and quick results are the enemy, whatever one’s locale. Impatience is the wily demon that tempts us to look for a better life elsewhere before we have invested in our towns and neighborhoods. Impatience is the demon who prods young people to hook up rather than court, or young adults to cohabit rather than marry. Impatience distracts married folks even in healthy marriages before they have discovered the subtly exquisite joys that can come only when spouses see each other through inevitable hard times. Impatience values quick profits over quality, turns financial investment into a game of speculation divorced from actual productivity and produces goods without thought of sustainability or environmental costs. Impatience strip-mines.

Ah, but I’m doing it again—critiquing more than envisioning, naming the temptation of fleeting glamorous pleasures rather than portraying the beauty of enduring authentic pleasures. That is the puzzle that follows from Wendell Berry’s haunting warning about our task as educators. Before they leave real places to explore any place, people young and old need time to really know their land and their people and the virtues embedded in their foibles. They need to relish stories of tragedy and comedy that explain how virtue and foible can coexist in ordinary ways that are not so boring after all.

But how do I convey this in the classroom to 19-year-olds itching for adventure or eager to find a career-building job? How do I convey this amid sterile desks using the PowerPoints I need to glamorize my lesson plans enough to compete for my students’ shortened attention spans? How do I convey in an entertaining way—as I am pressured to do—that the constantly entertained life is a ruse?

If the puzzle haunts me, my consolation is that the challenge should be no surprise. That joyous authenticity that is the opposite of the glamour of evil must be comfortably indifferent to its entertainment value. Indeed, it must often be outright self-effacing. So of course: That which is self-effacing is the most difficult and elusive to teach.

Except by living it out, unglamourously.

Reprinted with permission from America magazine, February 8, 2016, pp. 15-18.

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